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Road Trip Series: Getting to Graceland

I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 21 years old. I grew up in a city where buses and trains made driving unnecessary. But I think, even more important, I grew up with a mom who had a terrible phobia about driving. She hated to drive, panicked when she was asked to take the wheel for even a short time, and it was a fear she shared with all her brothers and sisters. There was no inciting incident, just an old-world belief that this big hunk of metal on wheels was a death machine.

When I graduated from college, I lucked into a six-month job at a movie studio in Los Angeles. It took me nearly two hours to get back and forth every day by bus, so driving lessons were in order. My years in California were all full of happy car memories. I loved driving to work on rainy days, listening to Ella and Louis and singing along.

Then eight years ago, just months after my daughter was born, my youngest brother, HT, died suddenly in a terrible car accident. For the first time, it seemed like my mother’s phobia had some truth to it. My brother’s car exploded and his body was so badly burned in the accident that there was no element of him to bury, no cheek to kiss goodbye.

My family, like so many, was fractured and broken, but my youngest brother had always been the definition of wabi sabi. He was the beautiful thing that emerged when you put all the broken pieces together. He loved computers and numbers, and one of my proudest moments as a big sister was getting him into a tech camp at MIT and driving him up to campus. HT was like the boys you see in movies and TV shows: tall, honey brown, handsome but unaware of it, unabashedly goofy and a little shy. It had been a joy to watch him grow into himself and all I could think, when my husband walked in and said that at 27 my brother was dead, was that this could not possibly be how the story of us was going to end.

I had been prepared to lose my parents, someday. I was prepared to die myself, hopefully someday in the faraway future. But I did not expect to lose my brilliant little brother, not one day, not ever.

Everyone told me to take solace in my baby. But my daughter was just six months old. I kept thinking, “I barely know her. She’s not a substitute for my brother.” The exhaustion of caring for a newborn and the grief of losing my brother were overwhelming. I wept constantly, in public, in private, uncontrollable like someone who was in fear of losing her life, which I was. I couldn’t sleep so I asked my doctor for and received my first prescription for sleeping pills. Each night I fell into a deep, long, dreamless sleep. My brother died just a few weeks before Christmas and I did not know how I was going to survive the holiday. I had been given 30 sleeping pills and I was afraid to ask for more.

The only thing that would calm me was Paul Simon’s Graceland. Every afternoon I would listen to Paul Simon and, sometimes, I would hold my baby close and dance to songs like “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” I sang aloud to “You Can Call Me Al” and reveled in the ways that they were funny and sad at the same time. Then a few days before Christmas, I said to my husband, “We have to go to Graceland. It’s the only thing.” In fact, I may have actually said, “I’ve reason to believe, we all will be received, in Graceland.”

So we got in the car and drove from Philadelphia to Memphis. I wasn’t afraid to drive. I knew that driving was safer than flying. And from the very first day, I felt a peace in the car that I had not been able to capture when I was home, sitting with my grief. The baby slept all day; it was winter but the sun was warm on our faces. We talked and listened to a lot of Paul Simon and by the time we showed up at Graceland, a few days after Christmas, I wasn’t done grieving, but I no longer felt like I was dying.

That car ride was one of the greatest gifts of my life. It showed me how kind my husband was that when I made a crazy request, he said yes. It taught me that I could pack up my grief and literally drive it away. It taught me that songs are healing and so is sunshine and a baby who sleeps for hours in the warm rumble of the car.

Of course, the big irony was that when I arrived at Graceland, I was a little shocked to hear Elvis blaring over the loudspeakers. No Paul Simon. No Soweto choirs. I hadn’t been thinking of Elvis at all as we drove for days to get to his house. But I did the tour and I ate barbecue and before we left I bought a Graceland ornament—of a pink Cadillac—that I hang on my tree every single year.

My daughter has, over these past few years, inherited our love of road trips. We drive everywhere—even when flying would be quicker and slightly cheaper. We listen to books on tape and play road trip games like going from person to person and naming a place or a food that begins with each letter of the alphabet. E. L. Doctorow once said writing a novel is “like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights illuminate but you can make the whole trip that way.” I believe that is as true for life as it is for writing. The dark moments in our life are like driving at night. But headlights, real and metaphorical are there to guide our way.

Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

Chambers is an award-winning and New York Times best-selling writer. She is co-author, with chef Eric Ripert, of 32 Yolks.

 Bio Photo Credit: Jason Clampet